Two things we know for sure about cultural rankings: They’re inevitably arbitrary, and we can’t get enough of them. The top university, sexiest person, best restaurant, greatest baseball player? The more impossible it is to make the list, the more we want to see it. And there’s probably nothing crazier than trying to name—in order—the most important people who ever lived.
So, of course, we try. In 1972 astrophysicist Michael Hart published “The 100,” a book-length attempt to answer the question. Rather than being applauded for his daring, however, he took heat for his choices: Mohammed at number one, Jesus Christ at number three, and the fight was on. Indeed, these exercises seem made for squabbling. We know rankings don’t really offer the kinds of answers we want, but it’s deeply satisfying to see these people down in a list, so we can argue about it.
Now comes a whole new approach. In “Who’s Bigger: Where Historical Figures Really Rank,” Steven Skiena, a professor of computer science at Stony Brook University, and Charles Ward, an engineer at Google, mine Wikipedia data in order to take a quantitative stab at who stands where in the long march of human accomplishment.
A user-generated encyclopedia might seem like a shaky foundation on which to base a data-driven book, but Skiena and Ward mount the argument that historical figures are like memes—ideas about formerly real people that propagate or fade through history. In this view, Wikipedia represents an acute listening device—a kind of unsupervised ongoing poll of who matters. Centuries on, the meme of Martin Luther is still strong, but the meme of his influential contemporary Huldrych Zwingli has grown so weak we barely hear it.
Skiena and Ward rank their historical figures based on two factors. One, which they called celebrity, they assessed by the length of a person’s Wikipedia entry, how often it’s viewed, and how often it’s edited. The other, gravitas, weighed the impact of a person’s achievements by looking at where a person’s Wikipedia page sits within a network of linked pages. So, Barack Obama (number 111) gets a gravitas boost because Bill Clinton’s (number 115), George W. Bush’s (number 36), and Osama bin Laden’s (number 765) Wikipedia pages all link to his.
The approach makes for a less provocative list than Hart’s—the top five are Jesus, Napoleon, Mohammed, Shakespeare, and Abraham Lincoln—but Skiena and Ward argue that this correspondence with conventional wisdom actually validates their results: Their model would be flawed if it were elevating more obscure people. (Though maybe Napoleon seems a little high at number two.) The same goes for classical composers: Mozart (number 24 overall) and Beethoven (number 27 overall) are the most significant figures.
Relying purely on the data does leave some holes, which the authors acknowledge. For one, women are as underrepresented on Wikipedia as they have been in history books. And the online encyclopedia skews toward contemporary Americans. (While Eminem is surely a talented artist, it is hard to imagine that he’s really the 823d most significant person in history, as his page views would indicate.) Skiena and Ward tried to correct for this bias, with only limited success: No fewer than seven 20th-century American presidents appear in the top 100.
As the quirks in the list imply, “Who’s Bigger” is inevitably more of an entertaining exercise than an authoritative response to an unanswerable question. But the authors contend it does give us a new and useful tool, one that can be matched against other measures of worth to suggest who deserves our attention and who, perhaps, gets too much of it. Who should really be in the Baseball Hall of Fame? Are autograph prices out of whack? The book tackles those questions, among others.
When it comes to the art market, for example, they chart “significance” against the highest price an artist’s painting has received at auction. Significance and painting price generally seem to move together, but there are some notable exceptions. According to Skiena and Ward, many of the most undervalued artists are actually some of the most famous names in art history—Raphael, Rembrandt, Cezanne. Meanwhile, they argue there’s a bubble in contemporary art.
“If I were investing in paintings I would not be buying Francis Bacon,” says Skiena. A 1969 triptych by the Irish artist sold for a record $142.4 million earlier this month. “I don’t think my children will know who Clyfford Still (number 21,388) is, or Cy Twombly (number 37,124) is, but they will know who Rembrandt (number 189) is and who Raphael (number 140) is, and who Braque (number 1,657) is, and so my instinct is that these painters are being relatively neglected today.”
Art, of course, is worth what people are willing to pay for it. And the lesson of this project is that the same holds for historical significance: People are as significant as we say they are. We see this effect with the recent revising down of John F. Kennedy’s (number 71) stature by historians, and it’s evident in movements to give overlooked historical figures their due. Measuring significance inevitably raises the question, significant to whom? In that view, maybe Miley Cyrus isn’t the 2,009th most important person who ever lived—but she is, at least, to us.Kevin Hartnett, an Ideas columnist, is a writer in South Carolina. He can be reached at email@example.com.